Director: Prano Bailey-Bond Starring: Niamh Algar, Michael Smiley, Nicholas Burns, Sophia La Porte Running Time: 84 minutes
What is it that we enjoy about horror? From the blood and guts found in slashers, to the mental torments we see in more psychological scares, we’ve been intentionally scaring ourselves with really fucked up horror stories for decades? Um, and we’re all just okay with this? Sounds pretty sadistic to be honest. Someone should censor us from ourselves.
What horror provides us can often be more complex and personal than only getting sick kicks from splatter of course. As genre legend Wes Craven once put it, horror films don’t create fear, they release it. Life doesn’t have to wear a hockey mask and wield a machete to be horrifying, but a movie offers narrative, it offers control, it offers an outlet. Prano Bailey-Bond delved into the guts of the gore in Censor, an atmospheric and engrossing debut feature with a great lead performance from Ireland’s own Niamh Algar.
Algar cuts a tense and twitchy figure as Enid Baines, a young woman working for the British Board of Film Classification during the height of the Video Nasty controversy. A quick catch up for the unititiated; in the 1980s, a moral panic took place in Britain over the easy availability of cheap exploitation and horror films, low in budget and lower in restraint, which put movies like The Driller Killer and Cannibal Apocalypse into the hands of young, innocent, impressionable moppets. These ‘nasty’ movies drew the ire of god botherers, the Daily Mail, Tories and anyone else at the time with a vested interest in focusing on eye catching content ahead of wider social issues, and increased censorship ensued. These movies could be cruel and crass, some were artful, many were laughable. Enid, labelled a goody two shoes by colleagues, treats them all the same, with a clinical and strict professionalism, and an unpassionate eye.
Enid is seemingly unfazed by the violence she seens on screen every day, rather focusing on getting her job right. Algar plays her with a steady head and a flattened tone, the kind of co-worker you don’t exactly dislike, but doesn’t often find themselves along at the afterwork drinks. She’s controlled, because she has to be. Needs to be, even. When a tabloid names her as the censor responsible for letting a movie that inspired real-life murders slip through, and when she starts to see unsettling and mysterious links between a prolific ‘Nasty’ director and her long-lost sister, Enid’s picture of things starts to get a little fuzzier…
Bailey-Bond and co-writer Anthony Fletcher start slowly, laying necessary groundwork both in Enid’s life and the historical context of suspicious and miserable Thatcherite Britain. Shot on 35mm, Super 8 and occasionally on VHS, Censor looks the part, full of otherworldly neons, chopping and screwing from a grainy look into something more unhinged, stylised and artificial as Enid delves deeper into her quest for her sister and the lurid world of people like dodgy producer Doug Smart (played by Michael Smiley). But the artificial trappings aren’t just for aesthetics, and one of Bailey-Bond’s biggest strengths on show here is how she uses these stylistic flourishes so well in service of her story.
Censor pulls a neat trick on its audience, by presenting Enid’s straightforward search for her sister, and her own unravelling as a very literal story, and showing it through the lens of very blunt, broad aesthetics, if you buy into it all at face value, it all lands you closer than you thought you were to the moral panic over the Video Nasties. Going in, you may find the pearl-clutching over paint red blood and drilling into papier mache heads ridiculous, but Censor shows how easily we can hoodwink ourselves into more histrionic thinking, and how ultimately conservative that is. Enid is hyper-focused on ‘getting it right’, because she can’t handle what it means to herself to ‘get it wrong’. The film shows the ways that denial of some scary truths, burying them or pushing them away, can be much more harmful than embracing an outlet, allowing yourself some catharsis or confronting some honesty. Or how you might be excessively indulging something ugly inside you while thinking that you’re avoiding it – the fallout from Enid’s censorial slip-up particularly insightful on this front – the slick look, sick score and reference round-up all sweet medicines to help something more bitter go down better.
Thoughtful and frightful, with a sense of empathy for its characters and a sense of mischief that pops up at well-timed moments, Censor is a promising and very entertaining take on horror, a conversation that engages where it could easily have tipped either way into a lecture or a ramble (not that I would know anything about either). It helps to have a great performance to guide you through from Algar, who is reserved but not without warmth, endearingly sensible before enviably unravelling. Enid, and the audience, may find a sweet release in darkness, the freedom of the frightening. Denial is clearly a much worse prospect. After all, aren’t people who insist that they’re never scared by horror, or refuse to watch them because they’re horrible, often the most insufferable bores? If you think something more sinister or literal is going on in this bloody, bewitching story, keep repeating,
It’s only a movie.
…only a movie.
…only a movie.
…only a movie.(4 / 5)